From the Director





by Rex Parker, Director

Remote Astro-Imaging Proposal for Members
Are you ready to move beyond the eyepiece and start doing astrophotography yourself? Would you like to be able to take awe-inspiring astro-images that impress your family and friends? Do you want to extend your technical knowledge by acquiring and processing your own celestial images? If you are thinking “yes” then read on. One of the facts about this avocation is that the equipment and software are expensive. And while you could jump in cold and start using the CCD camera that the club owns, there is another way to start on the learning curve. Through many years in this field I’ve had a chance to meet some very talented folks who have passed along their knowledge, so now it’s time to help pass along some of this to you.

First some background. Although I do a lot of imaging right here in central NJ, my remote observing group (SSRO, Star Shadows Remote Observatory) accesses a telescope in the PROMPT array at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile in Chile. PROMPT stands for Panchromatic Robotic Optical Monitoring and Polarimetry Telescopes, designed to study the powerful distant explosions called gamma-ray bursts. Our arrangement to use this telescope is through the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which runs several research programs at CTIO.

Last month I met with the professor who sponsors our remote imaging, Dr. Dan Reichart of UNC’s Physics and Astronomy Dept., at the Morehead Planetarium on campus (photos below). Dr. Reichart and his group developed “Skynet,” a prioritized queue scheduling program running on a computer at UNC. The Skynet Robotic Telescope Network controls several telescopes around the world at observatories in Chile, Australia, Italy, Canada, and US. Each is set up with CCD camera and filters for remote image acquisition. Would you be interested in participating in a “pilot program” for AAAP members to get experience in remote imaging with an account on the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network? A number of tutorial videos are available to help a user get up and running.

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I have initiated a personal account on UNC’s Skynet with group account capabilities which allows me to administer sub-accounts for AAAP members. The Skynet by-line is “whether you’re a first-time astronomer or a professional, Skynet’s easy-to-use yet powerful interface allows you to get the images you need”. Skynet also has a basic image processing program “Afterglow” that runs on the server, so you don’t need any special software on your PC. You also can download and process your images locally if you like. While there are time limits on the length of exposures, as a training and learning tool Skynet is superb. For more training, you could also enroll in UNC’s for-certificate online astronomy course, which includes 30 min Skynet imaging time, at Skynet is ready for AAAP members now – if you are interested in using Skynet for remote imaging, send me a note or talk to me at the meetings as soon as possible.

A role for the Celestron-14 in professional astronomy.
In my meeting with Dan Reichart at UNC last month, he told a story about the Celestron-14 in the picture below. C-14’s are excellent large aperture amateur telescopes, we have one at the club’s observatory, but there’s no mistaking one for a professional research scope. Or is there? Dr. Reichart is an expert in gamma-ray bursts, the very distant, enigmatic and high energy cosmic explosions that have challenged astrophysics for years. As PI of the PROMPT gamma-ray burst project at CTIO in Chile, Dan’s group measures the optical afterglow of the bursts in a collaboration between space-based IR and ground-based optical telescopes. In Sept 2005 using the large 4.1-meter optical and near-IR SOAR telescope at Cerro Pachon in Chile, they detected the optical counterpart to the most distant cosmic explosion ever detected. It was a gamma-ray burst from the edge of the visible universe first seen by NASA/Goddard’s SWIFT telescope, with a redshift of 6.29 translating to about 13 billion light-years from Earth. As confirmation Reichart’s team studied the same exact location in space using a temporary telescope installed at the still-incomplete PROMPT array on the adjacent peak Cerro Tololo — none-other than a Celestron-14 (see photo below)! The data from the C-14 measurements confirmed the interpretation of the SOAR data. Here’s a report from 2005


Board Meeting June 6. The AAAP Board of Trustees will meet on Tues June 6 at 7:30 pm in the Dome Room at Peyton Hall. Board members, committee chairs are urged to attend, and other interested members are welcome. Topics include: Skynet proposal, Jersey Starquest, and administrative changes.

Members’ Night at the Observatory, June 24, dusk till midnight. May 27 did not work out but we’ll give it another try on Sat June 24. The night is reserved for AAAP members, friends, and family, at our Observatory at Washington Crossing State Park, NJ. Even if you know little or nothing about telescopes (especially so) we want to see you out there! Check out the new equipment and software which have improved the observing experience. Experienced members are asked to bring their telescopes to show others. See the website for directions.

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From the Assistant Director

by Larry Kane, Assistant Director

I have two brief items of import to the AAAP membership that need updating. The first is the status of our group purchase of AAAP logo shirts and hats. At this writing, the order is ready to be submitted so this is final notice. If you have not, yet, let me know what you are interested in ordering, a T-shirt, a “Polo” shirt or a hat, contact me ASAP and send in your payment. T-shirts with the AAAP logo are $15, Polo shirts are $25 and hats (adjustable) are $15. All items are in black with the two-color logo embroidered on. Let me know the size(s), adult or child, you need and either send the payment to my Pay Pal account ( or mail a check to me at 29 George Washington Dr., Monroe Township, NJ 08831. If you hurry, you can still get one of these sought after items. I will submit the order four days after the Sidereal Times is made available.

The other major event, and it’s a big one, is the AAAP Expedition to Oregon to view the August 21st, Total Eclipse of the Sun on property next door to John Church’s brother. As I write this, there are still two motel rooms left under the reservation that I acquired several months ago. Sign-in is August 19 and sign-out is August 21. These rooms are in the Motel 6 Portland-Wilsonville, Oregon. They are about an hour’s drive to our viewing site. So if you are at all interested in either of these rooms, please contact me, ASAP. I have no doubt that this will be an event none of us, who will be in attendance, will forget. So don’t miss out on this opportunity to be a part of the most far-flung AAAP “Field Trip” in memory.

As always, feel free to contact me at either or or call me at 609-273-1456. Wishing all AAAP members and those they hold dear,

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From the Program Chair

By Ira Polans

New Jersey State Planetarium

New Jersey State Planetarium

The June meeting of the AAAP, and our last until next September, will take place on June 13th at the Planetarium of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. The meeting starts at 7:30 PM.

In addition to our normal club meeting, attendees will view a live star talk as well as our new science show at the Planetarium, “Wildest Weather in the Solar System“.

There is plenty of parking in front of the planetarium entrance behind the museum. Museum is located at –205 W. State Street, Trenton, NJ 08625.

We look forward to seeing you at the meeting.

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Double Dating

by Theodore R. Frimet

Are Mizar and Alcor sexting?

Mizar was presented to us as an optical double star, by NJ State Planetarium staffer and professional astronomer Bill Murray, at our Bright Spring Deep Sky Objects (DSO) presentation at the planetarium, on a rainy Saturday morning of May 13th.

As Mizar is the first double star on the list (part of the Big Dipper), I made this my priority to learn as much as this amateur could muster. The stellar light, I learned, that appears to broadcast to us from Mizar, is also imparted by its double dater, Alcor.

Mizar and Alcor, after the passing of 120 years of astronomical observation, and research, were revealed to be more than an optical binary. Below, I offer you, below, a revealing look at what is now known to be a our sextuplet!

Zeta Ursae Majoris (aka Mizar A & B), is my newest best friend and first on the bright star DSO list for AAAP Public Nights. Mizar is truly a quadruple system. Alcor, is a binary, and the pair, which I’ll dub, “AlcorUm” is therefore a sextuple (six part) system, about 83 light-years away from Sol..

Referencing author Dava Sobel’s “The Glass Universe”, pages 34-35, we give credit to Edward Pickering who noticed the “unprecedented doubling of the spectrum’s K line” on a Draper Memorial image taken March 29, 1887. Unfortunately, as soon as it was found, it was lost. Later, due to the diligence of Vassar College graduate, Miss Antonia Maury, (with honors in physics, astronomy and philosophy), saw it once again on January 7, 1889.

Sobel writes that Pickerings note read that sometimes it appears as a single, and at other times, a double! His theory eventually was proved that the small k-line separation effect is due to the two stars rotation about each other and that it completes “an orbital period every six months” (Wikipedia – Mizar and Alcor – May 13th 2017 19:42)

To be rock solid truthful, however, although the Draper Memorial group were the first to spectroscopically observe this double dating duo, credit is also due to Riccioli in 1650, G. Kirch and spouse in 1700, and “measured repeatedly since the time of Bradley in 1755”, as read from Robert Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, Volume 3, pages 1953-1954.

From Burnham we find that our optical double star has an observed separation of 8 degrees within the span of 200 years, then the period of our visually observed binary is many thousands of years. A quoted reference from Miss Agnes Clerke in 1905 speaks of a “possible accomplishment of a circuit in 10,000 years…”. Full rotation however, is reported occurring every 20.5386 days. I conclude that Miss Clerke was referring to the separation of the optical binaries, as they fall towards each other gravitationally, and push apart with their remaining momentum. As an aside, if we were able to live a few “circuits”, due diligence would divulge chaos directing the non-ordinary push and shove of such a system. This theory of mine is the result of my most current fling with author, James Gleick’s “Chaos, Making a New Science”.

Ms. Clerke made her observations two years after her honorary election into the Royal Astronomical Society, along with Lady Huggins, in 1903. She was the third woman to have held this rank. Ms. Clerke is referenced in the Sobel bibliography. I must admit to being a slow savory reader, and not having finished The Glass Universe, I cannot vouch for this lady of the Royal Astronomical Society being a Harvard Computer per se. However, at the speed of wiki, we find that overseas she was known for her collating, interpretation and summarization of astronomical research. (Wikipedia – Agnes Mary Clerke – May 14th 2017, 17:36 ).

In summary, so far…“Mizar A was the first spectroscopic binary to be discovered, by Pickering in 1889. Some spectroscopic binaries cannot be visually resolved and are discovered by studying the spectral lines of the suspect system over a long period of time. The two components of Mizar A are both about 35 times as bright as the Sun, and revolve around each other in about 20 days 12 hours and 55 minutes. Mizar B was later found to be a spectroscopic binary as well, its components completing an orbital period every six months.” (ibid)

Mizar’s fainter component, however, has different observed velocity shifts, and periods. Additional measurements showed us a third star within its grasp. Our wiki reference, and subsequent Google search leads us to an article at Sky and Telescope ( ) where further spectroscopy reinforces the observation that Mizar B to be a close orbiting pair of stars.

According to author and amateur astronomer Bob King, in his March 25, 2015 web article cited above, our optical binary double daters have not been found to be outside the family of our sextuplets, since 2009. It was at that time that reported that the 200 inch Hale telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory discovered the companion to Alcor, an M-dwarf star, more commonly referred to as a “red dwarf”. Despite it’s small sounding name, the 2009 observation reports it to be “250 times the mass of Jupiter”, which is according to my star sense, bigger than a bread box, and one-fourth the size of Sol.

With our ventures into exoplanets, perhaps a vying eye, with an acquaintance with high resolutions, (gigahertz, hint hint radio astronomers…) we may be pleasantly surprised with a septuple (seven parts) or a perhaps even a new planetary discovery in AlcorUm.

If only red shift detection could be done at will, and fully funded to keep research active for years to come at the Green Bank Telescope, West Virginia, we’d only need to ask once or maybe twice for a peek under the bed-sheets of our sextuplet daters.

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by Prasad Ganti

In the last decade or so, there has been lot of excitement around the discovery of exoplanets, that is the planets outside of our solar system. An interesting book on this topic has been “Exoplanets” by Michael Summers and James Trefil. The pace of discovery of exoplanets has quickened since the launch of Kepler space telescope a few years back. More discoveries can be expected in the future as more such telescopes are lined up to be launched. The interest in exoplanets is to find out if there is any life outside of our Earth. The search for life continues even within our solar system. But the curiosity about how the other worlds look like and how life on them could be, persists.

The first exoplanet was discovered to be orbiting a Pulsar in the 1990s. The first normal exoplanet was found around the star 51 Pegasi. It is as big as Jupiter and is very close to its star. Closer than our Mercury is to Sun. Both of these are very strange cases. A pulsar is a dead remnant of a massive star. It is basically a neutron star which is very compact and dense, sending out a beam of radiation. A planet orbiting such a dead star? Or a massive planet orbiting so close to a regular star?

A variety of planets have been discovered. More flavors than what can be found in our solar system. Some planets are rocky and several times the size of Earth. Some planets are so light that we cannot figure out why they don’t collapse under their own gravity. Some planets made of pure carbon, with diamond mantles and cores of liquid diamond. Diamond does not exist in liquid form on Earth. Some planets are known to orbit up to four stars at a time. Some planets are so close to their stars that the rocks on their surfaces are vaporized and then fall back as rain. Then there are planets which are wandering around the galaxy, without orbiting any star. Nature never ceases to amaze us. The last case was very intriguing to me as I always imagined planets orbiting their stars.

In any solar system, a huge mass of swirling dust and gas creates the planets. The planets begin a complex dance driven by the force of gravity – what we call as a game of cosmic billiards. Planetary orbits shift around and planets can be ejected from the solar system. It is likely that there are many more rogue planets randomly moving in the galaxy than there are planets circling stars.

Planets reflect the light from their stars. But that light is too feeble to detect, given that the starlight is many time brighter and tends to mask the reflected light from the planet. But the planets do pull on the star as much as the star pulls on the planets. This pull causes a wobble of the star, which can be detected. Called the Doppler Method, it is useful for detecting larger planets closer to their stars. Also, as planets pass in front of their stars, there is dimming of light from the star. Something similar to the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon we see on the Earth. But the dimming can also occur due to sunspots, or in a double star system, when one star goes behind the other.

A planet can get heated from its interior due to radioactive decay of heavy elements like Uranium and Radium, like our Earth. Or due to tidal forces as well. Such infrared radiation (heat) can be detected, but our detectors are not as sensitive yet. Or the starlight can be filtered out to get the light from the planet alone. The James Webb Space Telescope which is scheduled to be launched in a couple of years, will have a coronagraph to do this filtering. We can determine the composition of the exoplanet’s atmosphere by directly observing the spectrum of the light. The spectrograph breaks the light into its constituent colors. Just like a prism breaks the sunlight into different colors. The spectrograph has some dark lines depending on what the atmosphere of the planet is like. The light absorbed by the elements in its atmosphere lead to these dark lines.

Kepler watches only a small patch of the sky. Despite its handicap of malfunctioning reaction wheels, it still works reasonably well. Reaction wheels are gyroscopes which keep the satellite steady. Once it identifies a candidate planet, it turns over the validation process to Hubble or other ground based telescopes. NASA will launch TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will be launched in 2018. Unlike Kepler, it will sweep the entire sky and focus on nearby stars.

The future appears to be very bright in terms of detecting the exoplanets, and possibly life outside of our Earth. We may not be alone after all!

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compiled by Arlene & David Kaplan

Jupiter’s south pole - NASA

Jupiter’s south pole – NASA

NASA’s Jupiter Mission Reveals the ‘Brand-New and Unexpected’
The top and bottom of Jupiter are pockmarked with a chaotic mélange of swirls that are immense storms hundreds of miles across. The planet’s interior core appears bigger than expected, and swirling electric currents are generating surprisingly strong magnetic fields…more

Jupiter's moon Europa -NASA

Jupiter’s moon Europa -NASA

Nasa seeks experiment ideas for Europa lander
NASA is seeking the best ideas for experiments to fly on a mission that will land on Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Jovian satellite has a deep subsurface ocean beneath its ice crust and is considered one of the top targets in the search for alien life. After decades of work, a pair of missions to the moon have been taking shape…more

7 Planets of Trappist-1 - NYT

7 Planets of Trappist-1 – NYT

The Harmony That Keeps 7 Earth-size Worlds From Colliding
In February, astronomers announced the discovery of a nearby star with seven Earth-size planets, and at least some of the planets seemed to be in a zone that could provide cozy conditions for life. The finding of these planets circling the star Trappist-1…more

-NYT (ALMA/J. Bally/H. Drass et al. )

-NYT (ALMA/J. Bally/H. Drass et al. )

Aftermath of a Star Collision 1,900 Years Ago
About 1,900 years ago and 1,350 light years away, stars in a giant gas cloud behind the Orion constellation collided, ejecting two other young stars. With a telescope, the blast would have been visible from Earth about 500 years ago…more

Parker Solar Probe -JHU

Parker Solar Probe -JHU

Newly Named NASA Spacecraft Will Aim Straight for the Sun
Last week, NASA teased that it would have an announcement about next year’s mission to send a spacecraft into the outer atmosphere of the sun. Commenters on Twitter joked that the space agency might be sending humans there. The actual news? About 20 spacecraft have been named after prominent…more

An artist’s conception of  merging black holes

An artist’s conception of merging black holes

Third Gravitational Wave Detection
The void is rocking and rolling with invisible cataclysms. Astronomers said Thursday that they had felt space-time vibrations known as gravitational waves from the merger of a pair of mammoth black holes resulting in a pit of infinitely deep darkness weighing as much as 49 suns, some 3 billion light-years from here…more

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